Atanas Dobrev is the Chief Executive
Officer and member of the Management Board of VIVACOM. He took over the
management of the telecom in June 2013 as a Chief Operating Officer of the
operator after joining the Bulgarian Telecommunication Company (BTC) in 2008.
He holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the Crummer Graduate
School of Business in Florida, USA, and a Master’s Degree in International
Economic Relations from the University of National and World Economy.
Since 2009, BTC has been operating under the VIVACOM trademark. The company provides mobile and fixed phone services, Internet, television, cloud services, individual solutions for corporate clients, and in the last few years has successfully implemented innovative projects regarding Smart Cities and the Internet of Things.
Mr Dobrev, in the last decades, the ICT
sector has become a key sector to humanity. Why is that?
If we take a look at the industrial revolutions, we will see how the introduction of machines and electricity has changed the world. The transmission not only of voice but also of information over vast distances has led to a revolution in communications. People today expect affordable and secure communications which, are available at all times. We are now on the verge of the next revolution, which will be related to artificial intelligence. And communications are the basis without which this revolution would not be possible.
You have been part of VIVACOM for 11 years now. What technological change has taken place during this time?
When I joined the company, it had 2G coverage, though worse than that of the other two telecoms. There was also some 3G coverage. In order to improve it and to introduce new services, we have invested nearly BGN 1.9 billion for the last 11 years. I do not know another private company that has invested so many resources in Bulgaria. For 2018 alone, our investments amount to BGN 187 million.
These are enormous amounts, what was this money spent for?
If it took 10 years for the 2G network to develop, the 3G network took 5 years, and the 4G network became a fact for less than three years. We already have over 99% coverage of the population, as well as over 94% coverage of the territory according to our measurements, which is one of the highest in the EU. In the beginning of August, I was at the Seven Rila Lakes and found that almost everywhere we had 4G coverage, only around the Kidney lake, the coverage was 2G. What a change in just 10 years! The fear that if we talk on the phone for a long time we will pay dearly has remained in the past. In most subscription plans, there are either unlimited minutes or so many that we can never use them all. Among our high capital projects was the development of the optical coverage.
Currently, nearly 1.2 million households have access to high-speed landline Internet and interactive television, and this has unlocked investments in the sector, with Bulgaria being one of the first in broadband availability at home. When we started offering TV services in 2012, the market was fragmented and the services were of poor quality. We are now a leading provider of interactive television with access also via telephone. We have breathed new life into linear television, which was considered a dying business in many countries. Technology has allowed the control to go into the people’s hands and for them to determine what and when to watch.
In 2019, VIVACOM is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but the company has 130 years of history behind it. What else among the important moments you would like to highlight?
The change of the brand was caused by the fact that the company consisted of several units, which provided different services. Our image before our consumers was not clear. That is why 10 years ago, we changed our strategy and made the future belong to an integrated operator that will provide a variety of services. But in order to be selected, the operator has to deliver the best in every area. Changing the brand was a way of telling our clients that even though we were on the market for a long time, we were able to change and offer them what they needed. What has happened for these 10 years has largely justified our strategy. The results show that we are now number one telecom in total revenue for six consecutive years. 10 years ago, it was considered that being only a mobile operator was the right strategy. But today, there is hardly anyone, which does not want to be an integrated operator. We were moving in front of the wave. It’s nice when everyone is following you.
Do you lead your clients, or do they lead you?
We are closely monitoring the global trends, as well as our competitors locally. But truly successful companies have their path, they must be able to develop the market and contribute to the advancement of society. The important question is what clients will want in 5-10 years, not what they want now. The investment cycle in our industry is never less than 1 year, and most often it is more than 3-4 years. When hundreds of millions are invested, it is important to have a clear vision of what will happen in the future. The investments of today are the services that clients will use tomorrow.
What are your expectations for development in the next 10 years?
Digital transformation means automation of all the processes that allow it. This will give clients the opportunity to buy, modify and customize the services they want through their device. They will do everything from a distance without waiting in a queue. This autumn, we are launching our new e-shop, which is the result of over 2 years of efforts. It will be the basis for transferring many of our activities online. In 10 years, the speed of the network will be guaranteed, as are electricity and water where we need them. Having fast and secure communications in combination with networks capable of serving millions of devices per square kilometre will lead to a new cycle of change and investments in all of the other industries. Innovative companies will offer their clients new services in a better way. A new industrial revolution is awaiting us, covering all areas.
What kind of a technology is 5G and is it likely to have a negative impact on the life on the planet?
Electromagnetic radiation is perhaps people’s main concern in relation to the use of mobile networks and devices. But each electrical device that is plugged in creates an electromagnetic field and the device emits electromagnetic waves. Technically speaking, mobile communications use wavelengths and weak signals to transmit information effectively. In the spectrum where 2G to 5G networks operate, non-ionizing radiation is created. The harmful emissions that have been proven to cause cell destruction are the ionizing ones. Does a danger exist of 5G destroying life on the Earth? No! The “danger” is to reduce inefficiency and make our lives easier.
What will be the benefits of 5G networks?
They will enable the use of new frequencies, which will provide greater capacity for mobile data transmission. Today, more and more people have smartphones, which is why they need more and more mobile Internet. Thus, the annual growth of mobile Internet becomes more than 70%. If there is no 5G, the now existing network will be overloaded. If supply is restricted for technological reasons, prices will have to go up and the Internet will be slow and expensive. And with the increasing concentration of people in cities, a more efficient use of resources will be made possible through automated systems, which will manage traffic, video surveillance, garbage collection, etc. 5G networks will make this possible.
Does this mean that Smart Cities are not possible without 5G?
Yes, 5G actually means ultrafast, secure and dense mobile networks. 20 years ago, we couldn’t imagine a multifunctional portable device like today’s smartphones; this was only in the realm of fiction. By investing in 5G, we will unlock the next wave of human inventiveness. It will create new services that will improve our lives in ways we cannot even imagine today. This technology, for example, will help for the development of areas, such as telemedicine and unmanned vehicles.
What are the obstacles to the introduction of 5G in Bulgaria when there are so many advantages?
The competition between operators has made it possible for all three telecoms to be ready to enter the 5G era. However, only one mobile operator can operate in single frequency band. In order to have 5G, there must be a proper state policy – the frequency spectrum must be provided first. The appropriate frequencies are either very expensive or used for military purposes. That is why the development of 5G networks depends on whether the government will give the green light by revising and adjusting pricing policy to the new conditions. The current construction legislation also dates from the dawn of the development of mobile communications when there were few base stations. It is necessary that the regime for the refurbishment and construction of new base stations be updated, which will allow Bulgaria to be among the leading countries in the development of 5G.
Did the government not understand that they are a barrier to technology development, or do certain fears have a deterrent effect...
Bulgaria has one of the most strict safety regimes related to electromagnetic radiation levels – the permissible levels are 10 times lower than in most European countries. There is a misunderstanding on base station construction and the topic is still considered sensitive. In Europe, the 5G network is developing and we have to choose between new technologies and old fears.
More data will be generated in Smart Cities. How do you treat the overly sensitive subject of personal data protection?
Our business is based on the clients’ trust. Personal data protection is at the heart of our business and we take this responsibility extremely seriously. We have internal processes, policies and systems, as well as strict controls, which are in full compliance with GDPR.
You received the Innovation Award of the Confederation of Employers and Industrialists in Bulgaria (KRIB). What kind of innovation is now in the focus of the investments you are making?
The reason for the prize was the VIVA SMART platform. It brings together innovative services in three directions. The first one is Smart City solutions – from smart garbage collection, where we have several pilot projects, through the mass introduction of video surveillance in cities, traffic management and environment monitoring. These are just some of the challenges of life in the city that can be solved through technology. The second direction we work on is the storage, transfer and data processing. Digitalization of education is also important to us. In this area, we have both specific telecom solutions and a socially responsible Education 4.0 campaign, whose aim is to highlight the good practices from the use of technology in the learning process and to multiply them. The focus should be on the natural sciences because in the next 30 years, there will be a demand for such specialists. The other innovations we envision are related to increasing the capacity of the mobile network. We are working hard to break the 100-megabyte barrier next year and the smartphone to reach that speed. We are launching a cycle of investment in order to meet the growing needs of our clients at the right time. You can soon expect surprises in the interactive television as well.
Will you get into the area of financial services?
Innovation in payments is needed. Our ambition is to advance mobile payments not only to merchants but also between consumers. By the end of the year, you can expect to see our innovations in this area.
Who holds the “key” to Smart Cities?
The municipal administration. The city is a self-developing system in which the mayor and the municipal council are the local government. The Smart City is a collection of equipment, processes and technologies and is a more efficient way of delivering services by the municipality to its citizens.
How do you imagine VIVACOM in 10 years?
The key factors of change will be: automated solutions, efficiency and personalization for each client; security and trust; a chance for all industries to take advantage of technology. In 10 years, we will know how successful our strategy today was for expanding our portfolio and for entering the financial services industry. But our vision for the future is that telecoms will outgrow their role of a service provider and will become a trusted partner for connecting people and devices.
How much time do you spend on your smartphone a day?
About 2 hours while I am at work, and on weekends, I manage to reduce them to half an hour. This time does not include the use of a laptop and a tablet. I hardly have any time for television.
Do you set aside any time for a so-called digital detox?
Yes. At the Seven Rila Lakes, I used my phone mainly for photos. I think we need to find our balance and digital devices have to be our helper, not something that drives our lives. VIVACOM strives to help its clients and be an invisible part of their lives. We are successful only if our clients benefit from us without thinking about us.